Interview: Richard Reb'll talks about Reb'll Message, ETS Records, Honolulu studio sessions

Interviews Releases

An excerpt of my interview with Richard Reb'll appears on Aquarium Drunkard, in anticipation of the new From These Shores compilation. You can listen to the compilation here.

Looking back at all the amazing Hawaiian records Oliver Seguin has hipped me to over the years, I can quite distinctly remember the time and location of when he’s shared particularly mind-blowing tracks with me.

We were at Kakaako Waterfront Park in 2015, a sunset picnic with our families. Oliver played a digital rip of Richard Reb’ll’s "Reb’ll Message" from his phone. Blew me away. It’s a highly unusual, poetic mix of psych, funk, and spoken word. I’ll never forget that moment. Oliver then revealed there’s an instrumental on the B-side. Crazy.

I contacted Richard Reb’ll in early 2016 in hopes of licensing both tracks. He resides in Ewa Beach on the west side of Oahu, about an hour’s drive from Honolulu. The first time I visited Richard, he enthusiastically told me about the projects he’d been working on in recent years. He’s a writer, not a singer, and hasn’t recorded his vocals on anything since ‘Message,’ circa 1976.

Richard emphasizes that his focus is on writing, not singing. At the time of recording, he wanted another vocalist on it, but no one was available, so Richard settled for the next best thing: his own voice. The result is a poignant, lyrically mesmerizing track on the forthcoming From These Shores compilation (along with the instrumental).

I started compiling From These Shores in 2016, identifying about 25 potential tracks. While some artists—Richard Reb’ll, Merrell Fankhauser, and the late Eddie Suzuki’s son—were easy to track down, others weren’t and the process took nearly three years to complete.

Richard Reb’ll is one of the few artists I’ve worked with who has kept their master tapes over the years. (Dale Senaga, the producer behind Aiko’s My Home Town, confessed that he dumped the magnetic tape and donated the spools to a friend keen on using them for a home decor project). When it came time to transfer the tapes, we visited one of the few (only?) studios in Honolulu that has such capability, a mostly analog recording studio tucked in the back of lush Manoa Valley: Rendez-Vous Recording, run by long-time Honolulu resident Pierre Grill.

Richard brought a whole box of tapes, some duplicates of the same songs, others renditions of tunes he’d been refining over the years. When we first met, he gave me a copy of ‘Reb’ll Message.’ However, the label was different from Oliver’s. This one was on ETS Records with a white and blue label. Oliver’s copy is on SOS Records with a blue and black label. Turns out the ETS version, with its sparse instrumentation, is what you’d call a demo. The SOS version is the full fledged version meant for commercial release.

Along the way I began to realize the majority of the tracklist was comprised of tunes Oliver had introduced me to over the years. There was no doubt in my mind then, that Oliver should be recognized as a compiler. We’ve been DJing together since I first move back home to Hawaii in 2011, but this is his first such endeavor for the Aloha Got Soul label. Without Oliver’s ear, and golden digging touch, From These Shores wouldn’t exist.

Below is an edited version of two conversations I had with Richard Reb'll, in 2016 and 2018.

What was the very first song you wrote? What was it about?

“In My Blood,” 1965. It was just about peace, you know, trying to get along, try to make people like each other for themselves.

When we first met, you told me you are originally from the east coast, and came here to Hawaii for the military?

Yes. I lived all over though. Mexico City, New York, Connecticut, LA. I came to box, not to play music

What got you into music?

I been getting beat up too much as the boxer. And during my breaks I would had a couple of friends that played music and I would join them.

What kind of music were your friends playing?

Basically rock & roll songs. Like “Midnight Hour,” “Stand By Me,” “Mustang Sally”—basic rock ‘n roll music. A lot of musicians that I know, the die hards, guys like me, we would play for a couple of hundred dollars a night and now it’s like, “Rick, I got a job. It’s only 20 bucks each.” And I’ll take it. We prostitute ourselves because we love the music so much. But the money…

There's not many opportunities.

It's hard. Everybody's going DJ now. That's a wonderful thing. In fact, my friend told me, "Rick, why don't you go play congas for me and I'll DJ. We'll synchronize the music and it will come out nice" with your conga ideas and a DJ. I like a band, but nowadays everybody's going down to a DJ. I told myself, let me join that. If that's one reason I was a little . Yeah. So if I do it that way, at least I do. But he's doing on club because the big band is hard.

So you were living in Waipahu or Wahiawa?

Originally, when I was in the military, I met Al Lopaka, who was in Wahiawa. I played drums for him. I got out, and made my home in Wahiawa for about five years after I got out.

I came to Hawaii in 1968. It was 1969 when I started playing music. Real basic. This guy named Al Lopaka, he played guitar and figured he had to sing a little bit. The boss told him, "You gotta sing or I gotta get rid of you". So he started singing, he became real popular that way. But I started playing with him in 1969, 1970.

Did you meet him through the military or was that somebody else?

I went to a club. "They said, Rick, you like music a lot, they need a drummer at this club." That was Kalani Tavern, in Wahiawa on Kalani Avenue. So I went to play, I met him. He had a pretty good voice! But he sang like three songs and played guitar like for an hour. I said, "You should do opposite – sing more, play less guitar." So that's how we kinda got together and I started playing with him more and more. Once he got famous, he left that place. I had my own little group, it was a cute little thing but nobody was famous in my little group.

What was your group called?

The Flashbacks, I believe. A lot of different names — Salt and Pepper, because we had a singer who had salt and pepper hair. It was fun. Good experience. In 1975 I moved to Waipahu so my boy could go to school. No matter where we moved within Waipahu, he grew up in the same elementary, intermediate and high school. I wanted him to be real close to everybody.

I know I asked you when we spoke on the phone last time, what ETS stands for and you told me your friend was in the military...

...and he was getting out — Estimated Time of Separation. All military knew that, ETS. So that's what he called it.

But after that release he decided wasn't for him?

He became a professional security guard at the federal building. And I'd go by and say hi. He totally got out of music.

On that same label, it says Richard Reb'll and the RNR. Was that an acronym for your group that you had?

It was the guys that were on it, whoever I hired that day. I'd tell my buddy, "Hey, come play drums for me, I'm gonna play keyboards. I'll give you 50 bucks." So that was the RNR, Richard Reb'll and the RNR.

How did you go from the ETS version to the the second version in the studio. It has synthesizers, drums and electric guitar.

I think that was Pierre Grill.

How did that come about, after the first version?

Once my friend decided he didn't want to do business no more and didn't want to get into music and didn't even want to have nothing to do with it, I met Pierre Grill. And I started working with him and he said, we’ll just get a bunch of guys together and I've got guys too if you need, just pay him this and that for the singer or the drummer or whatever. He'd asked, What are you playing today, Rick? Today? Guitar. But, I would get my guys, we called it RNR. Pierre played a couple of instruments. He sang a song or two for me. The song was real nice, but he don't have a voice; he's a cool guy but he has a heavy accent. "Rick, I really liked his song. I want to do it, please." I said okay. He's very professional. So I would get anybody and called it the RNR. My friend Rick Riccio, he totally wanted out of the music business.

That was the guy who went on to be a security guard?

Yeah. Because he went sick. So when he then I started dealing with Pierre and then whatever I put out, it was just me putting in any name I wanted, an umbrella. I was trying to get somebody to take over the song and make it more popular. Even if you eliminated from the song, that was fine. I was trying not to push the song, not me.

Let's talk about "Reb’ll Message". Tell me about that song.

Reb'll Message is about everybody trying to get along. Just accept people for who they are, what they are. Look at people's hearts and not how they look. Basically. That's what it is.

I love that song because of not only the lyrics and the musical quality in content, but also the spoken word approach that you took. Please tell me a little bit about that. Very poetic.

I did the bassline and everything because it's real simple and I just want it simple and I was going to have a guy sing it for me cause I told him I don't have the voice and he didn't want to sing it. So I got another guy to do the talking. And when we went to the studio, he didn't show up. He got loaded I think. I ended up doing it cause I, they said you gotta pay for the studio. And it's right down the street from me, from you,

Which studio was it?

Commercial Recording, I believe. I recorded that there, originally. And they said, “Well, you're paying for the studio."

How much time did you pay for?

I think it was one or two hours because I had a drummer and all that come in too. So I paid for the studio and I said, I might as well do it. At least it's a demo. And after we were done, everybody said, “Hey, it sounds really cool.” And I said, well maybe we should get a better voice . But yeah, I'd like that. A singing voice or a talking one and, or could do both. I never pushed it more than that, but everybody liked the baseline. I created that. It's very simple.

I love the drums too. They're real driving.

Yeah, because the words were mellow. I wanted the drums to be driving.

How would you describe this song to somebody who's not familiar, or never heard it before?

It's a positive song with a beat. It's not a rock beat, but it the drum alone is kind of heavy. And so the music, so mellow in the worth of mellow, I wanted opposite and I got it. Yeah, it came up good.

The lyrics are slightly different between versions. The first version says, "I am Brown."

Yeah. Something like that.

And then the second version says, "I was not born good looking".

Yeah, I just changed it, trying to improve on it. I used to tell any singer I had, if you want to change some of the lyrics that's fine. You can change anything. I work with a lot of musicians that say, "You can't change a chord, you can't change the lyric." But I never felt that way because I know the gist of the song — In My Blood, or Love You Now, or You're Gone Forever — whatever the song may be, it's there already. So you can change a couple of words, it's gonna be the same.

Yeah, you can definitely hear it evolved from the original version into the next version.

I changed a couple lyrics because I thought it might be a little better. But if anybody wanted to do to the original, that's great.

I think the Message and the Echo are, those are yours, all the way. Without you it wouldn't be the same song.

I live that way. My music is that way, too. My nature is to always forgive. I live the same way I write. Another song I wrote, "I Pray", you haven't heard it yet because I wrote it a long time ago with Reb'll's Echo. It's a very melodic song. If I could find the tape, I'll give it to you because I do have everything. A lot of it's on the big tape and I haven't gone to the studio yet and you know, transferred everything. I got a couple of things from Herman where he's singing a song called "Counting Cars" instead of sheep, because in other words his girlfriend went out to parties. Every car that would come by, he was hoping it's her coming back. Herman sings and plays guitar. It came out nice! It's a country version. I'll give it to you if ever could get it done, it's a two track or something.

My favorite is the last part of the song. The original version says, "Every race." And the second version, says "The human race".

Little things, that you could change to try and make it a little more punchy.

What was the reason for doing the flip side, which is an instrumental with added instrumentation?

I didn't have money to actually have another song, so I just did the instrumental of that.

Do you remember how many you pressed for that ETS version?

Very few, because I was paying for it and raising my kid. So I didn't have to, that would give it to a girl. So call me. Sometimes I give her that like an incentive for her to call me. I didn't make any money. I wasn't sell them either. For one, I told myself I'm not a professional singer. I'm a writer.

So they weren't in stores or anything?

I don't know how Jelly's got it. I never tried to sell it.

So you probably pressed 200 or something?

I think that was what it. 200 or 250.

And then the second version you did with Herman Bautista, do you recall that one as well?

It was about the same. Herman lived in Waianae, he would call me and say Hey Rick, come on up and see me; and could you give me some money?" I said, but you're in Waianae. "Well, come pick me up then." Yeah, okay. So we'd go practice. I picked him up. He never had the money. So anything I did, I had to pay for the studio, pay the guys a couple bucks. Anytime I pressed anything, I paid for that too. That's why I was limited, because I already knew I wasn't going to make money, but I was trying to give people something just so that they could say, "Rick, I really like it and I want to make it better." That's what I hope for. It was just a demo. That's all it was.

Herman was a very good friend and an excellent guitar player. He passed away in about 2007. I made several demos of the song — always trying to push myself as a songwriter. I do play the drums, and a little saxophone. I have a few with Herman, but he really did not like going to the studios like I did. He liked playing, not practicing or recording. On my master , I think I have a country song that I wrote and he sang.

I just left Pierre Grill’s studio where i recorded an instrumental called “Good-by". I wrote it because I had to get rid of my two beautiful dogs because of a new landlord. I do have about 30 songs that I have composed; so if you ever have a singer that you want new material for, please think of me.

Sometimes when you have another person come in and collaborate, it takes a song to a new level, or a new place.

My boy said, “Dad, you know, you're real nice for the people and all that, but you've never met a guy that could help you. It's always you helping the guys.” The studio musicians and all that, they were good but they would never take the extra step like I do. Anytime I go to the studio I would pay them, so I always had to limit myself money-wise. So I had Pierre play a lot of the drums and bass because his timing was impeccable. I'm a musician but my timing follows the band. But you can tell when one guy does everything.

Like Society of Seven, I wanted to let them do my music, but those guys go, "Yeah, but you only write. We could do everything . We don't need you; we want our name on it." I don't blame them. But I do have the material, and they would say, "Yeah, but we do it." And they're right. Money-wise, they were smart: keep their name on it, and they can push stuff. Some guys are born writers, some are born singers, musicians. I said, all I can do good is write. I can't do nothing else good. But guys will say, well we're average writers and that's good enough.

That's how I lived all my life. They're always telling me, "Yours is better than mine, but mine is mine." I don't think so. But if you ever want to get good, good, let me know. I'll give you my song and you could change it.

What would you like, what would you like people to feel or understand today when they hear the song? People my age, people around the world.

Try to get along, when you're driving or anything. Just try to get along. That's the basics of life, and a lot of people don't. Just coming down to the studio cause almost had a couple of accidents because people are speeding mad at each other and just try to get along. And that's actually very hard to do.

You'd think on an island in the middle of the ocean where the Aloha spirit is prevalent, you think that'd be real easy?

Yeah, but it's hidden a lot because everybody says "Aloha" then you get in a fight. So it's a lot of pressure tool when you're in Hawaii, for the people of Hawaii, because everything — they're supposed to be all Aloha. And a lot of times they're mad and they have a good reason to be mad, but they're not supposed to show it. But when you're driving, drinking, then it does come out more. It's hard. Hawaii, the hard place to live, but it's a beautiful place and most people have good hearts. They can't complain about it because they're Aloha.

A lot of people are looking at Aloha Got Soul, our record label, from around the world and maybe they've never visited here. What would your, what would you say to somebody who's never been here but they're coming here for the first time?

Get used to the people, accept them. Cause most of them are all very nice, but don't try to put your ways to the people because they are in Hawaii. Don't try to correct the way that they speak, the way they drive. I mean, that's them. And slowly they will learn our consequences, but don't try to change them right away. And a lot of people, a lot of my tenants do try to change people.

I like that.

Don't change . Accept them for being Hawaii.

Yeah. Just live here and be in the now. Live here and accept it.

Accept them.

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